A Long, Slow Road to Recovery : Assailants Silent as Teen Struggles Back From Tragedy

Times Staff Writer

The progress is coming. Slowly, painfully, but it is coming.

Eighteen months ago, Jennifer Pratt was the shattered remnant of a terrible tragedy.

While sitting on the back of her boyfriend's motorcycle at a stop light on a lonely stretch of road in Carlsbad late one night, she was hit in the head by a length of 2-by-4 tossed from a white pickup loaded with teen-agers.

She languished in a coma for three months. When the Encinitas teen-ager finally came around, the damage to her brain caused her body to knot into a fetal position. Her memory seemed a blank slate.

Taking Her First Steps

Today, Jennifer is up and taking her first steps since the incident. Her fingers, once twisted into tight fists, have been straightened by therapy and are functioning almost perfectly. And her mind is healing. The facts and concepts of yesteryear are beginning to creep back into her consciousness.

But this is not the Jenny Pratt her friends and family once knew. That young woman, the San Dieguito High School sophomore, the one with the bouncing mane of blond hair, the one who dreamed of being a model, is probably lost forever, her doctors say.

Adding to the frustration is the stalled effort to bring her assailants to justice. Aided by a private investigator, her parents feel certain they know the identities of the teens involved in the board-throwing incident, but police say they lack sufficient evidence to bring charges.

None of the youths involved has stepped forward to identify the culprit. Instead, they've remained hidden behind an impenetrable code of silence, a twisted sort of teen-age loyalty.

"I've just about given up," said Garry Strom, Jennifer's stepfather. "I just really can't see anything happening after a year and a half. The detectives, the police, they're all frustrated. Everything seems at a dead end."

Sgt. Jim Byler, the Carlsbad detective handling the case, agrees.

"It's been very frustrating," Byler said. "We gave it our best shot, but some cases don't get solved easily. Some don't ever get solved. As long as it's been now, I'm certainly not optimistic we're going to be able to figure out who did it."

In recent months, Jennifer's family has increasingly turned their focus away from the icy trail of her assailant. Instead, the day-to-day effort of helping the 17-year-old begin to overcome her disabilities taps a sizable share of the family's energy.

She came home in late March after a year in the hospital. Her parents now drive her to San Diego each day to attend classes at the Sharp Rehabilitation Center.

But those sessions, though valuable, may soon come to an end. In November, the family's insurance aid is scheduled to run out, and Jennifer may be forced to begin attending a less-intensive special education program at her old high school. (Already her medical bills are approaching $800,000.)

To make matters worse, Strom has been unable to find a steady job since leaving his position as an assistant vice president with a financial services firm about a year ago, after a run-in with his bosses over the hours he put in during Jennifer's recuperation.

"We're just going along month by month right now," he said. "I would dig a ditch if I could pay my bills."

'It's Been Hell'

Jennifer's mother, Diane Strom, puts the past 18 months in plain perspective: "It's been hell. When you're with this day after day, you don't really notice the changes, the improvements. And it gets really, really depressing, even though she's getting better gradually."

While Jennifer remembers nothing of the night she was hit, her long-term memory of other events seems to be recovering nicely. But her short-term memory remains impaired. She often can't remember what she had for lunch and occasionally repeats herself in conversation.

Her physical condition, meanwhile, has improved. Though confined to a wheel chair for months after the accident, she now can walk, although her left leg is still painful, wrapped in a cast to straighten the foot. Her left arm is frozen at the elbow by a cement-like calcium deposit, but a future operation should rectify that, her parents say.

As Jennifer slowly regains her cognitive abilities, the sad reality of her situation grows ever clearer to the young woman. Her moods often turn bitter.

"She has greater insights into her disabilities, and that's been painful for her," said Dr. Jerome Stenehjem, medical director for rehabilitation at Scripp's Hospital in Encinitas and the physician coordinating Jennifer's treatment. "She knows there are problems and at times expresses herself, crying and saying things like, 'I wish I were dead,' or 'I hate myself.' "

Sitting on the couch in the family's comfortable home one recent day, Jennifer seemed child-like and serene. It is a happy mask, her mother says, that she can don for a visitor.

Flashes of Teen-Ager

As she talks, flashes of the bubbly teen-ager often burst to the surface.

Is she experiencing pain? "No way! No way, Jose!" she says with glee. "You know, sometimes I feel like I'm the happiest clam in this whole wide world."

She tells a visitor how she was asked at school to name all the different places in the world that she could remember knowing of before the accident. She was able to list China, Hawaii, New Zealand, Ireland.

"How in the world do you think I remembered that?" Jennifer asks her mom, wondrous at the prospect of her own returning memory.

Diane Strom nods her approval. "All of a sudden she'll say, 'Mom, who's Greta Garbo? Who's Fleetwood Mac?' And my mouth drops open."

Although Jennifer has begun to think about boys again, she talks in the fairy-tale terms of childhood revisited.

"You know what? I'm trying hard to find a frog," she says. "A frog in the back yard to kiss and turn into a prince and get married and live in a castle."

'A Miserable Life'

Just minutes later she admits to feeling bitter about her fate.

"I get really bummed. I get angry because I feel I'm living a miserable life. Sometimes I feel like everything in the world is wrong in my life. But what can I do about that?"

At one point, she says she wants to move out of the house when she turns 18, to live on her own like so many of her peers. But that day is probably several years away.

Though Jennifer has made "remarkable progress" in the months since her injury, it is doubtful she will "ever be the person she could have been," Stenehjem said. Questions remain as to whether she will be able to fully integrate into the outside environment as a young adult anytime soon.

"She's been in a very nurturing, supportive environment since her injury, but now she's going to be faced with meeting other young people and facing some of life's harder aspects," the doctor said. "Frankly, she does not have all the cognitive abilities in social interaction that she needs to react normally."

Her mother says Jennifer has yet to fully accept her limitations. "I think what makes it hardest for her is that, in her own mind, she thinks she can go out and jog, she thinks she can just go play tennis."

Though Jennifer talks excitedly about old friends, her mother says she has not gotten a visit from any in months.

"She misses having friends, period," Diane Strom said. "No one comes here. No one."

But the media has continued to lavish attention on Jennifer. In October, she is to be the subject of a People magazine profile. A television program titled "Unsolved Mysteries" is also planning a segment on her. And a Hollywood production company is working on a made-for-TV movie on the tragedy.

Diane and Garry Strom hope the continued attention will help break open her case. In addition, they hope the TV movie will produce revenue and private contributions for a special trust fund set up for Jennifer at Torrey Pines Bank in La Jolla to pay for her ongoing medical care and rehabilitation.

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